In our own hands

To offer consolation is an act of generosity.

Arthur Frank, The Renewal of Generosity

ANZAC Day: dodging the memorialisation of war by gardening, trying to distribute worm casts without ripping handfuls of living worms to bits. I’m feeling the dirt packed under my fingernails, and suddenly hearing Thom Gunn’s poem that skids to a stop on the matter of our cellular form: when we die and fall into the earth, we become dirt, and there is no intention in this, it just is.

This poem ends with the plants that consume and grow from what’s left of us. It reminds me of Sharon Olds’ meditation on the Challenger shuttle explosion (“What I want / to do is find each cell, / slip it out of the fishes’ mouths, / ash in the tree, / soot in your eyes’ ; see this post). These are the similar words I hear from Gunn’s poem while gardening with worms:

Cell after cell the plants convert / my special richness in the dirt: / all that they get, they get by chance / and multiply in ignorance

Thom Gunn, ‘The Unsettled Motorcyclist’s Vision of His Death

My hands
These are my hands

Seeing ahead to the material plainness of what comes after our own dying should change the way we live and work, not just for people of faith, but for all of us. We’re here for a short time, and our priorities should be our own. But it’s not a simple thing to untangle ourselves from the visions and imperatives imposed on us by institutions, families and culture, to create sufficient thinking space that we can understand what choices we can make, what agency we have, in the time we have left.

To develop our agency, our capacity for generous action, in institutional contexts that Arthur Frank describes as cultures of “menacing possibility”, we need to find and care for others who are thinking similarly.

In his book The Renewal of Generosity, Frank talks about the stories shared in healthcare as gifts that expand this space of possibility.

The resonance of stories is what they give beyond what they ostensibly tell. Stories of the generosity of ill people, doctors, and nurses can show what is possible for any of us at any time. That is their consolation.

He’s using the word consolation deliberately, in a passage of his thoughts on generosity. To Frank, the climate of demoralization in stressed organizations is one that invites us to find and care for one another through specific practices of generosity, hospitality and consolation. To console is to comfort, and in its origins there is a sense of withness. To this extent, it resembles empathy, but there’s a subtle difference in consolation. To console is to recognise otherness as the basis of suffering that is separate from our own, to care without the hubristic claim of empathy.

Stories shared do this precisely: they invite us to approach others with humility. They don’t demand reciprocity; to receive a story, it’s enough to listen. You don’t need to offer a story in return. Stories are occasions for hospitality: to receive what comes, to listen without judging, without necessarily joining in, but in the discipline of full attention. Stories don’t fool us into forgetting who we are: however moving they are, we never fully experience them as the person telling them. In accepting the gift of a story, we recognise and respect that the other person is who they are because of a singular and also politically shaped set of experiences that are not our own. Listening well teaches us that what we do share is a matter of process: the values of others are drawn from their living, just as our own are.

Two days ago I had the opportunity to think a bit about where stories sit amongst the principles of compassionate leadership, at a #compassionlab retreat organised in Victoria by Mary Freer. In 2016, Mary won a Westpac Fellowship to find out about how empathy and compassion are changing workplace cultures and organisations around the world, and now she’s back with ideas and energy to share. Mary is a visionary and gifted leader, passionate about our capacity for change, and highly persuasive: in her company, and the company of the friends she brings to training events, a good world not only seems possible, but likely.

On the way to the retreat, I spent quite a bit of time in the company of a young man driving a taxi. He told me his story, of coming to Australia from a rural Punjabi village, on the values that he lives by, and the values he admires in others. He told me about his family, the way older people are valued in his home community, his hopes for the future. He seemed to me to embody the “pragmatic optimist” that we learned about at #compassionlab—someone whose sense of hope for the future has a good grasp of resources, constraints and opportunities, who can take steps to act to bring about the future in intentional ways. Along the way he explained to me why temples offer free food, and about the cultural values behind feeding those who need feeding. He mapped out a cultural framework for continuous learning, and told me stories of other Sikhs who made him proud of who he wants to be in this world.

The gift he left with me, in his own words: that if there is to be a good world, a good future, it’s one we will make with our hands.


Two years ago this weekend. Another year.

Over the past days, Sister Helen Prejean has been actively campaigning on Twitter to protest the rushed executions of men on death row in Arkansas. I came across Sister Prejean during the time that Myuran Sukumaran was still living, and I came home from the retreat watching  Australian death penalty activists sharing on Twitter the reminder that it’s two years ago since he was executed.

Sister Prejean’s tenacity is extraordinary. She is a skilful, articulate social media user, and she uses these channels unflinchingly to keep in public view the lives of those facing premeditated state killing, and the harm done to their families facing violent bereavement, often after years and years and years of delay. She uses faith and scripture, and generosity and hope, and every other thing available, to campaign until there isn’t a breath left. I don’t know how she holds herself up, but there she is, arguing exhaustedly and with conviction that the future can be remade at any moment, precisely because it’s in our hands.

I have a copy of a self-portrait by Myuran Sukumaran on my office noticeboard and I look at it every day. It reminds me to keep the future calmly in view, and in this way to try to meet it while still caring about something, believing that there is something to care about, whatever turns up.

And to meet it making something, growing something, with my own hands.

So much thanks to Mary Freer, Helen Prejean, and Jag, driving someone somewhere today, making a good world

As ever, thoughts with Mrs Sukumaran and the Sukumaran family.

Following orders

The police response to the UC Davis protests is rapidly becoming an issue on which it’s only acceptable to take one side.

I’ve watched the pepper spray video over and over.  The first time you see it, you do find yourself holding your breath, hand over your mouth.  Many people have talked about watching it in tears, and I was one.  I’ve read the commentary, I’ve followed the outrage on Twitter, I’ve shown the video to my daughters who, for reasons best known to their Australian selves, are currently dreaming of attending college in the United States.  (That latter day Nancy Drew, Veronica Mars has a certain amount to do with this.)

Yes, it’s horrifying.  Yes, like many parents and college teachers familiar with the kinds of brave, imaginative young people who bother to engage in campus protests, I believe this excessive confrontation should have been avoided.  I want them all to be safer.

But I’m also starting to want some kind of safety to extend to the much smaller group of young and recently young professionals seen in the video, the ones wearing the uniforms and the helmets. The problem is that when thinking about these cops, and the senior figures who authorised their deployment, demonisation is cheap and easy. More than that, it seems to be becoming compulsory; to do otherwise is to risk being compared with an apologist for Eichmann.

So now from behind the safety of the internet’s vast perspex shield, we’re all surging against them, along with the crowd on the day, who converted disorganised screaming panic into coherent, videogenic protest.  Shame on you, we whisper, suddenly feeling ourselves part of a grand global belonging to something good, at last.  Not on my watch.  Not in my name.

But I think we’re letting ourselves off lightly when we do this. To understand how all this happened, we do have to ask harder questions, not only about the policy reframing of police action in particular contexts, but about the much more ordinary sequence of decisions that causes anyone to sign up for a particular job, and then to stay in it, knowing that the rules and codes of behaviour are what they are.

The world’s attention has been focused on the face and demeanour (and now the salary) of Officer Pike, wielding the pepper spray like a bug gun, but what brought each of his colleagues to that point where their collective and individual efforts in that awful situation felt appropriate, inevitable, even wise?  How did each of them get caught up in this profound miscalculation, suddenly and so decisively on the wrong side of our global, chanting crowd?

American poet Sharon Olds, prompted by the endless re-runs of the Challenger shuttle disaster—and the similarly replayed footage of Christa McAuliffe’s parents in the crowd gradually comprehending what had just happened in the skies in front of them—wrote beautifully of her wish to rewind that tape, to sort out all the elements of the catastrophe and send them back to where they came from:

Pull that rocket
back down
surely to earth, open the hatch
and draw them out like fresh-born creatures,
sort them out, family by family, go
away, disperse, do not meet here.

(‘For and Against Knowledge’, for Christa McAuliffe)

This anguish about the irreversibility of choice interacting with chance haunts the actuality footage from any just-before moment.  Look, there’s Mohammed Atta passing through airport security.  Why does no one notice him? Why can’t this day be unwound?  Look, there’s Jamie Bulger walking through the mall, reaching up to hold hands with a boy who is about to kill him.  Why can’t we pull them both back to safety?

The person I keep wanting to rescue from the UC Davis video is the cop who’s not wearing a helmet, who’s standing a little back from the action.  He’s unaware of the global PR catastrophe that is about to envelope him and his colleagues; he’s just at work, managing a crowd, joking with a cameraman, keeping calm, more or less remembering his manners, doing his job. Who knows what he’s thinking really? Well, it seems, we all do. And now he knows what the whole world thinks of him, his career choice, the professional ethics of anyone wearing his uniform.

Marc Bousquet also believes that we should think about the turning points that cause someone to end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, but that we should justly identify ourselves with those whose judgment saves them from moral calamity:

At most of the forks in our road, most of us choose the brave and difficult path. Every day, hundreds of millions of us refuse invitations to be Eichmann. We refuse to be exploiters and thugs, or their attorneys and lower managers.  That’s why democracy works better than hierarchy, and that, among imperfect social organizations, more democratic generally works better than less democratic.

Thankfully he also admits that our everyday refusals are limited and partial. We can always do better. So as we struggle to help imperfect social organizations under exceptional stress become more rather than less democratic, we need to speak a little more clearly about the fact that universities are also filling up to the brim with processes that emphasise the virtue of compliance: unexceptional, reliable, pragmatic, without fuss, for reward. We’re rarely encouraged to act according to our own ethical compass; far from it, we’re trained to align our values with quality management strategies that claim the privilege of fair play and equity.

The campus culture of creating and following orders (let’s call this policy implementation) is starting to seem like a defining problem for universities. Our external obligations mean that we must be able to say what we’re doing with public money and this involves sector-wide standards for everything; our internal mission is based on the belief that the capacity to exercise independent judgment is critical to both innovation and expertise.  The tension between these could resolve either way, but at the moment the pendulum is swinging in favour of the systemic relinquishing of personal judgment; we have more or less gone along with this because, it seems, we have accepted the proposition that we make universities better, safer places when we do.

So we’re right to be appalled by police brutality wherever it occurs—just not necessarily on the grounds that someone else’s standard operating procedures represent an exceptional collusion with hierarchical thinking that we would not contemplate for ourselves.